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(en) Britain, Anarchist Federation Organise #67 - REVIEW - Charles H. Kerr - Radical Publishers is 120 years old

Date Wed, 13 Dec 2006 11:35:03 +0200



006 sees the 120th anniversary of the birth of the radical publishers Charles H. Kerr - making it the oldest `publishers of anti-establishment literature' around today. Founded in Chicago 1886 to print radical Unitarian literature, CHK soon developed towards publishing anarchist and socialist material under the radicalising influence of the Haymarket fit-up, and has been publishing continuously ever since. One of the very first successes that the company had was in fact key in the campaign to pardon the surviving anarchists, Lester C. Hurrard's The Coming Climax (!) being particularly influential in Governor Atgeld's decision to issue a pardon in 1893.

The mainstay of the early catalogue tended to be what are today known as `Marxist classics' but which in their time were important popularises of progressive ideas amongst the working class. A torrent of books and pamphlets flooded from the CHK press in the period up to 1920 covering industrial unionism, working class history, atheism, sex education, anthropology, economics (Mary E. Marcy's classic of the genre Shop Talks on Economics that sold over two million copies!) and the first ever complete English language edition of the three volumes of Capital.

Alongside this CHK also published the highly sophisticated monthly theoretical journal International Socialist Review (ISR) which was associated with the extreme left of the Socialist Party and the IWW. Until it was forced to close by repression following it's opposition to the US's entry into WW1 in 1918 ISR was probably the foremost English language journal in the world - that such a journal also managed to reach a circulation of 45,000 under the very difficult conditions for radical organising in the first few decades of the 20th century in the US attests to its very high standards married to a wide accessibility.

The ISR was characterised by the quality of its contributors and the originality of their articles, which in the main came from the left wing of the Second International - of those elements that fought hardest, longest and earliest against the Internationals degeneration into reformism and social patriotism - writers such as Anton Pannekoek, Herman Gorter, Rosa Luxemburg and those who represented the new militant syndicalism that was fighting against the same damaging trends in the union movement - Joe Hill, Big Bill Haywood, Emile Pouget, James Connolly. Others who were also introduced to the English speaking world through ISR included Lenin, Kollantai and Trotsky. Cartoons were carried by such powerful voices of the working class experience as Ralph Chaplin and Robert Minor (before he ditched anarchism for paid Stalinism), Arturo Giovanaetti and Jack London. And all this under the very capable leadership of the remarkable Mary E.Marcy - who actually killed herself in despair when the state eventually did manage to shut down the ISR.

Following the end of WW1 the company carried on as best it could despite suffering from constant state interference and financial difficulties, but on a drastically reduced scale. New books were still published but they became rarer and rarer during this period. Finally in 1928, Charles H Kerr retired after nearly 50 years at the helm - he passed the running of the company onto John Keracher and The Proletarian Party - a very odd bunch of working class autodidacts with a passion for lectures, free `proletarian universities' and debate. (Incidentally, Paul Mattick, the veteran Council Communist was expelled from the PP in 1931 for `factionalism'). The PP took very careful care of the press, despite the predictions of many that they would simply utilise it to sectarian ends. Instead they used it to keep key Marxist classics in print and to circulate educational material - they even managed to make the first English translation and publication of Engel's important Anti-Duhring under very difficult circumstances.

The PP finally dissolved in 1971 after a 60 year existence in which they "never merged with any other party, never admitted defeat, never disbanded, independent to the last" in the words of one of the IWW affiliated members of the group which now took over the running of the company, injecting a fresh dynamic and more lively approach than the aging members of the PP had been able to.

New books now began to appear alongside the traditional classics - the first ever biography of Lucy Parsons, books on Eugene Debs and Joe Hill (Franklin Rosemont's book on Hill being one of the best books on radical working class culture ever published), books on labour organising in the south, Haymarket collections, books on black revolt, working class autobiographies, Hobo life, Surrealism, Marxism, Jazz, poetry, cartoons and many, many other subjects without there being any noticeable let up in the pace. They have played an absolutely crucial role in keeping the idea of popular working class social history, history from below, history by for and of the working class at the forefront of our struggles - they have always known that reclaiming our past is key to building our common future.

Let us hope, that they continue to flame the flames of discontent for as long as it's needed!
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